Since starting the Men’s Counseling Center of Northern Michigan, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share information with my peers in the community. I recently gave a presentation at the monthly meeting of the Women’s Therapists Network in Petoskey, Michigan. I chose to talk about men’s shame, and, in the process, took a look at Brene Brown’s book, Men, Women and Worthiness. Her tone is invitingly conversational, and her comments both support and advance the contention that shame is the core issue for many men.
Brown defines shame as the sense that “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me, that I’m unworthy of love.” She points out that shame decimates self-esteem, and, if deep enough, shame turns into self-contempt. Here’s my personal example of shame, typical of the shaming experiences most men endure.
One day, a long time ago, I went to Sam’s Club to get groceries and a few other things. On my way in, I passed the tire center, and I thought to myself, “Geez, I need some new tires.” There were these two big burly guys behind the counter. I stood there for a while until finally one of them turned his attention to me. I said, “I think I need some new tires.” He said, “So what size does your car take?” My mind went blank; I didn’t have the slightest idea what size fit my car. I said, “I don’t know.” The guys looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Then the larger of the two said, “So, do you know what kind of car you have?” I died a little bit that day. My conclusion: clearly a real man knows the tire size of his car, and I must not be man enough.
I know I’m not alone. Men are relentlessly shamed. Alongside major shaming events in their lives, I believe it’s the day-to-day small humiliations that most undermine men’s self-esteem.
- When they can’t remember the names of guys on their local NFL, NBA, MLB teams
- When they don’t have a good sense of direction
- When they can’t describe what’s wrong with their car or computer
- When they get nervous in public speaking
- When they don’t get a joke
- When they’re pee-shy and other guys notice it (what the hell is taking you so long?)
- When they have premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction
- When, in the presence of other men, they feel dominated by women.
Fear of Shame
When I lived in Grand Rapids, I was in a supervision group and, before the session started, we were talking about the dark feelings of hurt, fear, and shame. Kirk Brink, the group supervisor, a great therapist and truly wise man, came in and joined our conversation. He said, “You know, first, it’s really not hurt, fear, and shame; hurt doesn’t go so deep; it doesn’t sear like fear or shame. And second, it’s really not fear and shame, it’s fear of shame.”
So, many men not only have been regularly shamed, but they live in the incessant anxiety that they’ll be further shamed. They live in fear of embarrassment, intimidation, humiliation. They are watchful, guarded, vigilant, they keep their distance, they act much more confident than they really are to avoid further shame. When they are shamed, they act out in their own bullying, abuse, and violence to deal with it or avoid it.
Men go through life as if they’re on patrol in a war zone, and they never know when they might get ambushed. Because they’re so frequently ridiculed and mocked and bullied in their daily lives, they come to see the world as a deeply unsafe place. Brene Brown points out that, over their lifetimes, when men are repeatedly shamed they either get pissed off or they shut down, and sooner or later, some way, some how, some time, many of them explode.
I believe that it’s helpful to confront men with their attitudes and behavior, teach them to avoid power and control tactics, and exhort them to respect women. And, although psycho-educational groups – otherwise known as cognitive-behavioral therapy – are a courageous and appropriate first step, they don’t go far enough. Men don’t make much progress in these settings because they aren’t being treated for the underlying issues, one of which is shame.
Brown’s goal is to help people develop shame resilience: identifying triggers, practicing critical awareness, sharing stories of shame, and speaking about shame events. She sees that the empathy from others is the primary antidote to shame. The bottom line, as many of us know already, is that it’s the vulnerability of self-disclosure that heals shame. I’ve told the story of the tire guys on many occasions, and, every time, it reduces my sense of shame and makes my view of the incident more balanced—it’s not only about me and my shame, but also about the shame that propels the tire guys to put down other guys to boost their own poor egos.
My colleague, Randy Flood, and I have seen men effectively recognize their shame in individual counseling; they can be vulnerable in places like Alcoholics Anonymous, maybe Bible study, but it’s in men’s experiential therapy groups that men can transform themselves from shame to self-respect.
In our groups, ordinary guys do extraordinary things.
- Dwayne has been rightfully concerned about the careless practices at work that endanger people’s lives but eventually he’s become paralyzed with shame because his superiors have convinced him he’s the problem. Once he speaks of his shame, some of his humiliation falls away.
- Sal has been “going crazy” because he’s discovered that his wife is having an affair; he begins to quiet himself in group as he recognizes that he’s not the only man who’s been cuckolded, and, anyway, maybe it’s best that the relationship end.
- Dustin gets tears in his eyes when he worries that he’ll fall apart and won’t be able to speak the words when he proposes to his girlfriend, that he won’t do it right. When he speaks of it to the group, the other guys assure him that she’ll love him all the more for his gushiness, and his worries disappear.
Way back in the early nineteenth century, Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party when the masks are dropped.” Whether you’re a man who’s taking a look at our site, a therapist who works with men and helps men recognize and recover from their shame, let’s hope that we lay down our masks before the end of life. Let us learn now to admit, proclaim, even celebrate our shame. Let us heal.
This is a great post. I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown and decided to read a little more about the issue. I discovered your post and can relate to a lot of what you say. For me it’s public speaking that brings fear of potential shame. I’m writing a post about the shame of infertility. It would be great to have your expert opinion.
How can women better support their men in working through shame? What is some advice you can give us that will help us become better allys to men that have yet to acknowledge their shame without causing further damage?
Amanda: While you may have the ability to heighten his shame, the work of reducing shame requires men to accept the inherent vulnerability involved in exposing and processing their shame. Otherwise, men work to hide or deny shame and are at risk of becoming defensive or withdrawn when challenged by others. We find men will take risks to share their shame when they see other courageous men model such vulnerability and strength. We witness this in our men’s groups. Meanwhile. you can invite him to engage in conversations where you both are sharing aspects of your personal shame. If he accepts, you can validate his courage and let him know it emboldens your love, respect, and admiration of him, rather than seeing him as weak or ineffectual.
How does exhorting men to respect women help him heal his shame? Women are the potential reason for his shame trigger. So what you’re saying is for men to succeed at being respectful to women, they heal shame and shame won’t die due to not being successful with women?
Healing shame is complex and this article isn’t intended to be an exhaustive exposition on the healing of shame. If we suffer from shame, it is often due to both healthy and toxic shame. Healthy shame is the feeling we get when we act in ways that support a lesser version of ourselves, and this bad feeling motivates us to work on personal change so we can become a better, more optimized, version of ourselves. As men, we receive unhealthy messages from the culture about what it means to be a real man. These messages can set us up to fail and to feel unnecessarily bad about ourselves. We can heal from this shame by embracing a healthier, more balanced view of masculinity that considers our humanity rather than just a rigid and outdated gender binary.
We can feel better about ourselves when we control how we view and treat others; we can’t necessarily control how others treat us. When we act respectfully to others–including women–we have a much better chance to feel good about ourselves, rather than if we act in hateful, disrespectful, and debasing ways to others. So yes, if we behave in sexist and misogynistic ways to women, this ultimately only foments shame. Ultimately, we can only control how we act and react to others. How we choose to respond enables us to develop healthy self-esteem or contributes to our self-loathing and feelings of shame. If you mean “successful with women” equates to being successful in an intimate relationship with women, no, we aren’t saying that. If one chooses to be celibate for a time, or if a man is gay, then both can work on any inherent shame issues, without having to be in an active intimate relationship with a female. Nonetheless, how we treat others as a group can also contribute to shame and esteem in that, when we treat others humanely and civilly we contribute to feeling humane and civil as an individual and conversely inhumane and uncivil when we are actively marginalizing and degrading other social groups.
I’m a woman who has stumbled on this post and it has deeply moved and informed me. I feel that I need to encourage you to keep speaking about these truths and also to address women about them because, as one of the commenters stated, we women are often a key source of shaming for men.
Thank you for sharing more about how men experience shame. I am a Certified Dare to Lead facilitator where I teach Brené’s work which includes shame and how it shows up at work. There is a much higher ratio of women to men that join my sessions and I’m very comfortable talking about shame with women. Not so much with men because I don’t fully understand how it might be different from how women experience it, interpret it, or work through it. I was caught off guard by a male CEO who commented that he has never experienced shame. (Enter my own shame trigger.) Where I don’t believe he’s never experienced shame, what I do believe is that shame has never been defined for him. It’s not talked about so he didn’t understand it. Thank you for creating spaces where conversations like this can happen… and helping me better understand men and shame.
Hi, I have never been able to quantify why I struggle with eye contact with other males. I’m in my late 50s and happily married but get highly embarrassed when I’m in a conversation with another man and my eyes look downward unintentionally and I notice them feeling uncomfortable like I’m trying to notice their junk. Then the more I try not to look in a downward direction I overcompensate and look upward. Terrible with eye contact…is this a type of shame? Appreciate the privacy.
Anonymous: They say the eyes are the windows into the soul. We do know that eye contact creates greater opportunities for intimacy and human connection. Male to male relationships are often confined to competition and posturing for dominance so this can complicate intimacy. Also, as males we are often socialized to not desire intimacy with other males as intimacy can be conflated with sexual interests. Finally, intimate human connection can cause us to feel vulnerable and when we feel vulnerability, shame can manifest and break the human connection, hence breaking eye contact. I can’t say for sure what is happening for you, but I wanted to provide a response to give you some ideas to ponder and consider. I wish you the best as you continue to learn and grow.
Women always have more respect and regard by society than men do. I think it is very insulting and abusive to tell men that their problems stem from not respecting women.
This comes across as the typical gaslighting most men get from society.
Do you ever tell women to respect men? I highly doubt it.
Billy: Charlie doesn’t singularly conclude that all men’s problems emanate from not respecting women. Charlie states, “I believe that it’s helpful to confront men with their attitudes and behavior, teach them to avoid power and control tactics, and exhort them to respect women.” He proposes this particular idea in the mosaic or aggregate of what can contribute to men’s sense of shame. We are a men’s resource center not a women’s resource center, so the “whataboutisms” and zero sum arguments don’t really help us advance our efforts to help men become the best versions of themselves.
The short answer to your question is “of course” since respect for others is foundational to civility and community. Yet, this basic unconditional positive regard for our fellow humans can’t be conflated with accepting and respecting behaviors from others that marginalize or demean another sub-group of humans in the intersections of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. We can respectfully and assertively challenge oppressive attitudes and behaviors since we believe it is not only deleterious to those oppressed, but ultimately harmful to the oppressors and the safe and strong communities we attempt to build together.
BB’s Ted talk video is yet another example of the soft sexism against men in recent decades. ‘Men have one reason for shame: perception of weakness’
Wrong. Of course there’s a dramatically nuanced statement for women’s reasons for shame. There are as many for men, but she (BB) seems to have an agenda or didn’t dig deeply enough into men’s reasons. Embarrassing.
Seth: Brene Brown has written and spoken extensively and like all of us, she is an evolving person who continues to learn and develop her ideas. I’ve heard her speak and write to her initial misunderstandings of men’s shame. She admits to being historically insensitive to how much women shame men as well as other men as Charlie discusses in this article. Charlie provides several examples of how men can get shamed and yes it can be individualized and nuanced, while at the same time gender-specific in its tone and theme. Thanks for reading the article and emphasizing the importance of understanding the complexity and nuances of men’s shame, reminding us that it isn’t always a one-size-fits-all.